Distance: Lake #3 11.6 miles (Round Trip) Elevation: 11,140 Ft Difficulty: Easy to Moderate Permit Required: Yes - Click Here
My friend Kristen and I decided that before the weather got too cold we needed to backpack Cottonwood Lakes in California and finally summit Mt Langley which is 14,026 feet in elevation. We set a date and invited Luke, her fiancé, my brother David, and my brother's friend Donoven. Here is our experience with some tips for you're next Cottonwood Lakes trip!
Cottonwood Lakes is located in the Eastern Sierras at the southern end of the John Muir Wilderness. Here you will find beautiful meadows, forested shorelines and breathtaking views of Mt Langley and Cirque Peak. We decided to camp at Lake 3 and attempt Old Army Pass, which is a shorter unmaintained Trail that leads to Mt Langley. The Visitor Center did warn us that at this time of year Old Army pass may be covered in Snow and Ice. If that is the case it is highly suggested that hikers attempting the climb wear crampons and carry an ice axe on them. We had neither of those but we figured we would at least check it out and make our decision there.
The beginning of the trail will take you northwest through pine forests and across the south fork of Cottonwood Creek. Take the well placed log to bridge the creek or if it is low enough you can go ahead and use the rocks to walk across. Continue on this trail for 3.5 miles until you reach the sign for New Army Pass and Cottonwood Lakes. Keep right and continue on towards Cottonwood Lakes or if you are heading towards New Army Pass and the the South Fork Lakes continue Left. The trail will now begin to climb a steep, dry, forested hillside. Towards the top of this climb you will see a sign for Muir Lake that will lead you to the right. Since we were heading towards Lakes 3, 4, and 5 we stayed to the left and continued hiking. Around the beautiful meadow you come across Lake 3.
The View of the Lake was absolutely stunning! We were glad we chose to set up camp there. We hiked along the north eastern side of to find a flat/clear spot for three tents. Right after we finished setting up the tents it began to snow on us! We knew it was going to be cold with a possibility of rain but the temperature was lower then expected. No big deal for us though! The guys got their fishing gear out and headed for the water. They fished for a couple of hours while we waited for our friends Kristen and Adam. They finally arrived about an hour before the sun went down. That is when the temperature got ridiculously low. Eventually we all called it quits and attempted to get warm in our tents.
The next morning we woke to ice and a little bit of snow around our tents. The wind had also picked up during the night. We quickly got our coffee/tea to warm us up and some delicious breakfast. I had a feeling that we wouldn't be able to hike Old Army Pass due to the weather but everyone else was determined. After getting everything ready we hiked the .4 miles up to Lake 4 and 5. Just like I assumed, Old Army Pass was indeed covered in snow. I hiked up to the beginning of the snow but turned back and watched as the others finished the hike. They said it was sketchy but doable. After what seemed like forever, they finally made it to the top. The views were breathtaking! They could see Sequoia National Park on one side, stunning views of lakes 4 and 5 on the other and snow covered mountain tops. Unfortunately the weather was not cooperating and Mt Langley was covered in storm clouds. The wind began to pick up so they decided not to risk summiting Mt Langley. Luke and David took Old Army Pass back down to Lake 5 while Kristen and Adam chose the safer route by taking New Army Pass.
Before we began our trip to Cottonwood Lakes the weather said it would be 100% clear and sunny the second day but that quickly changed. We could see the storm clouds rolling in and the wind picking up. Our original plan was to stay one more night because we thought we would be too tired from summiting Mt Langley. Since we weren't, we decided to head out that afternoon. The 5.8 mile hike back wasn't bad at all aside from the weather. We were able to catch an amazing sunset and make it to our cars before dark.
Cottonwood Lakes is an amazing hike filled with beauty and breathtaking views. We do plan on coming back next year to finally summit Mt Langley and experience the other lakes. If you have any questions please comment below. Don't forget to watch the video from our Cottonwood Lakes Backpacking trip below. If you like the video please give it a thumbs up and don't forget to subscribe :)